‘The cast of the past’: truth commissions and the making and marginalization of identity

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While truth commissions have become the ‘go to’ response in the aftermath of violent conflict and human rights abuses, serious critical discussion on the extent to which commissions have tended to shape and reify the identities of victims and perpetrators and obscures the reality of structural culpability is only tentatively emerging in the field. Drawing on literature from the field of transitional justice, this article critically interrogates the relationship between truth commissions and the three key constituencies of victims, perpetrators and structural actors. It suggests that binary oppositions between victims and perpetrators are frequently privileged, resulting in hierarchal conceptions of innocent victims and guilty perpetrators. These polarized categories fail to reflect the complexity of conflict and promote easy and uncritical allocations of blame and responsibility. It also argues that the capacity of truth commissions to engage with structural actors and the structural causes of conflict is limited due to the influence of human rights and criminal justice on transitional justice and an individualized focus on violations of civil and political rights. An impunity gap is thus created, eliding broader patterns of institutional complicity and responsibility for structural violence, while the focus on civil and political rights violations creates further hierarchies of harm and hierarchies of victimisation. The paper concludes that greater recognition of the complexity of identity and involvement in conflict is required to provide a more honest reflection on the past and a more sustainable link between truth telling and peace building.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-129
Number of pages17
Issue number2
Early online date02 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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